The Threepenny Opera

October 7, 2011 § 3 Comments

Bertolt Brecht


Wednesday night Lisa and I went to The Threepenny Opera at BAM, by the Berliner Ensemble (in German with supertitles), directed by Robert Wilson. It was stunning and creepy, decadent as in “decay,” not artisanal dark chocolate and free trade silk pajamas. All those rousing, sexy Kurt Weill songs are sung by leering mannequin-like actors in white face, lips and eyes outlined in black (think Uncle Fester in Weimar Germany) speaking and singing in a gutteral German that I found thrilling but not in the way Kurt Weill usually thrills me. Opting for corpse-glam, Wilson ensured there was no lust for the dashing, evil Macheath, no sneaky affection for the daring thug-thieves. It was all spectacle and dark music and the memory of emotions that once carried meaning—hope, desire—now frozen into a hellish diorama.

There were many places where the actors simply stopped and screamed, the scream going beyond an expression of whatever disturbing event they were experiencing: they screamed because in their world, words will never, could never, be enough. Mrs. Peacham (Traute Hoess) was especially good at these raw vocalizations, as well as doing a marvelously demented hiccup routine to signal drunkenness. She was a really scary wind-up toy, something out of Stephen King at his most inspired.

The show is a tour de force; I’m glad I saw it. I’d also like to see it again done differently. I can imagine a Threepenny Opera production that would pay full homage to the nihilism of the text, yet still feel alive. In that production, I might have been charmed by Macheath, as all the ladies are. But in this production when Polly Peacham remarks that having so many people murdered just to get her some wedding furniture seems a bit much, I completely agreed with her. I knew it was funny, but it didn’t feel funny. I was numbed to both the revolutionary and the farcical spirit.

The one scene that did work, emotionally, was the one with Macheath in prison while his bride and his lover, both claiming the right to him, parade in front of his jail cell, screaming insults at each other. Lisa nudged me. Yes, I got it. There’s been something like that in my life recently (you don’t want to know). This was the point when the sexlessness of the actor playing Macheath worked, because when women succumb to the red fury of jealousy, the man effectively disappears. He’s just the scrap of meat, the gnawed bone.

For most of the show, after an hour of gorging my senses on the spare and brilliant set—literally as well as metaphorically brilliant—costumes, and choreography, I got the most pleasure when I shut my eyes. I love Brecht’s writing and wanted to read every word, but there were moments in the songs when the chorus repeated and I could go blind, just listening. It was a dissonant, snarly music, like a vast underground conspiracy of rage, like monster trucks racing on the highway at night without drivers, like a whole city of alley cats fucking at the same time. It was New York City, 2011.

Afterwards, Lisa and I had dinner, and she told me, as she has before, that so much of my pain is just ego, and I can let go of ego. She wasn’t implying that this is easy; but perhaps that I’m not trying hard enough. She’s right about that. I have moments when ego disappears, and I look at the theater of my life with a cool dispassion, noting the patterns and possibilities, the poignantly pathetic human drama. I applaud the writer then, the one who keeps throwing obstacles at the balky protagonist clinging to her old, far-too-imperfect self.

I can’t quite want to give up my ego. I’m less afraid of that than I used to be—that it will impair survival—and much less enamored of my stew of passions, but I still hesitate. Ego’s a nice warm place, and winter’s coming.

Pirate Jenny
(When I used to listen to Judy Collins’ version, I believed in the song completely, never realizing it was a whore’s sad fantasy…in those days, I thought we all got a chance at revenge, and would happily take it. )

You people can watch while I’m scrubbing these floors
And I’m scrubbin’ the floors while you’re gawking
Maybe once ya tip me and it makes ya feel swell
In this crummy Southern town
In this crummy old hotel
But you’ll never guess to who you’re talkin’.
No. You couldn’t ever guess to who you’re talkin’.

Then one night there’s a scream in the night
And you’ll wonder who could that have been
And you see me kinda grinnin’ while I’m scrubbin’
And you say, “What’s she got to grin?”
I’ll tell you.

There’s a ship
The Black Freighter
With a skull on its masthead
Will be coming in

You gentlemen can say, “Hey gal, finish them floors!
Get upstairs! What’s wrong with you! Earn your keep here!
You toss me your tips
And look out to the ships
But I’m counting your heads
As I’m making the beds
Cuz there’s nobody gonna sleep here, tonight
Nobody’s gonna sleep here
Nobody!
Nobody!

Then one night there’s a scream in the night
And you say, “Who’s that kicking up a row?”
And ya see me kinda starin’ out the winda
And you say, “What’s she got to stare at now?”
I’ll tell ya.

There’s a ship
The Black Freighter
Turns around in the harbor
Shootin’ guns from her bow

Now
You gentlemen can wipe off that smile off your face
Cause every building in town is a flat one
This whole frickin’ place will be down to the ground
Only this cheap hotel standing up safe and sound
And you yell, “Why do they spare that one?”
Yes.
That’s what you say.
“Why do they spare that one?”

All the night through, through the noise and to-do
You wonder who is that person that lives up there?
And you see me stepping out in the morning
Looking nice with a ribbon in my hair

And the ship
The Black Freighter
Runs a flag up it’s masthead
And a cheer rings the air

By noontime the dock
Is a-swarmin’ with men
Comin’ out from the ghostly freighter
They move in the shadows
Where no one can see
And they’re chainin’ up people
And they’re bringin’ em to me
Askin’ me,
“Kill them NOW, or LATER?”
Askin’ ME!
“Kill them now, or later?”

Noon by the clock
And so still at the dock
You can hear a foghorn miles away
And in that quiet of death
I’ll say, “Right now.
Right now!”

Then they pile up the bodies
And I’ll say,
“That’ll learn ya!”

And the ship
The Black Freighter
Disappears out to sea
And
On
It
Is
Me

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§ 3 Responses to The Threepenny Opera

  • Gina Heiserman says:

    “It was a dissonant, snarly music, like a vast underground conspiracy of rage, like monster trucks racing on the highway at night without drivers, like a whole city of alley cats fucking at the same time. It was New York City, 2011.”

    Thrilling, M, the whole review. And thanks for “Pirate Jenny” — it’s been a long time.

  • Kate Gardner says:

    The only production I’ve seen was a college one when I was in college, and I’m pretty sure that it was played as a comedy with dark streaks.
    –Kate

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